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Always Pickin’: Buddy Guy Writes the Book on the Blues

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Photo: Aaron Porter

By Alli Carlisle

Early one gray Wednesday morning, Buddy Guy is waiting at the bar in his club Legends. He sits quietly, watching TV, as his assistant leads me over to shake his hand. Something about it makes me feel like she’s introducing me to her grandfather. We both follow the assistant’s directions agreeably as she leads us to a room upstairs. Guy is friendly and happy to meet me; his eyes light up as he shakes my hand. I’m his second interview of the day, and he’s already got something on his mind—it turns out to be politics. As soon as we sit down, Guy gives me a speech about the lies politicians are all telling us, blaming each other for taking away jobs when it’s really technology that’s doing it.

Guy has certainly seen his fair share of changes. Growing up as the son of sharecroppers in Louisiana, he didn’t see running water until his teenage years. He taught himself music by playing a Howlin’ Wolf song over and over on a two-string guitar. In 1957, just after turning twenty-one, Guy took a train up to Chicago and started playing in small blues clubs, making his way into the company of the great figures who defined the Chicago electric blues style—Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Earl Hooker, and B.B. King, to name a few. Guy came up in the blues world as the protégé of Muddy Waters, starting out as a recording artist at the now legendary Chess Records. Over the years, Guy has not only become an icon in the blues world, but has also seen the the blues’ place in the world change quite a bit: from underground unknown, to internationally loved under the auspices of British pop starts like Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, to the territory of cultural historians, niche music lovers and middle-aged white men.

As is only fitting for someone who’s been such a crucial part of music history, Guy put out a memoir this summer, “When I Left Home.” With the help of writer David Ritz, who has also co-authored memoirs with B.B. Kind and Etta James, Guy tells his story in his own unmistakably affable style, against the backdrop of a changing Chicago and an evolving music industry. We sat down in a room above the club to talk about writing the book, meeting the President of the United States, and where the blues might be headed.

What got you thinking about writing a memoir?
Well, you know, David, who is the co-author of the book, he had did well with Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye and several other people, and he came and approached me. And I don’t know nothin’ about writin’ a book, and I went and thought about it. And the information that I had, I’m the only one left could give it to him. Yeah, I looked around, and all those great blues players who I learned everything from is gone. And I said to myself and I said, “You better speak it now,” because if somethin’ happen to me, who you gonna access information, true information, from? And I said, “Buddy, you better go ahead and do it.”

He knew just what to ask me to get it out of me. Well, it’s like a song, you know, when I go to write a song, and I would get one line, sometime it’d never get that second line on that song until you heard somebody say somethin’, maybe on the other side the world, and you say, “That’s what I was lookin’ for, that second line.” So he brought outta me what I had in me that I don’t think I coulda just volunteered, and said it. And he’s good at that. We sat here for four or five days, and he could come up and start pickin’ me about the different things that he knew I should know about. And that’s what made the book—a lot of people tellin’ me reading the book is just like talking to me.  And like I say, I was just giving information that I’ve got.

Photo: Aaron Porter

Do a lot of people assume that everything you sing about is a true story about your life?
The great, late Eddie Boyd wrote a song once about “Five Long Years,” and he got a line in there about “I worked in the steel mill for five long years,” and anyway it was a song about a steel mill. Several of us—Eric Clapton, myself, I think B.B. done did it, it was a famous blues song. And when you go sing it for the audience now, they looks at you and say, “How was it in the steel mill?” And I never been in one.

You write in the book “Funny thing about the blues: you play ’em cause you got ’em. But when you play ’em, you lose ’em. If you hear ’em—if you let the music get into your soul—you also lose ’em. The blues chase the blues away.” Do people tend to assume the blues is only about pain and struggle?
Most blues lyrics is about good or bad times, and some people just think it’s always bad, but you know, it’s not. We sing about the good times too. I always tell people who’s confused about it, B.B. King say, “I got a sweet little angel, I love the way she spreads her wings.” That don’t sound too sad! Matter of fact, I was being interviewed in a old club back then, and I think the guy was from Yugoslavia, and he was askin’ me, “What did he mean?” And a customer half way down the bar say, “I’ll tell you what it means!”

You write about some pretty crazy things happening in the blues clubs in the early days—fights, stabbings. You ever have anything that wild happen at Legends?
Ohh, girl. Yeah. No, no, we don’t. You know, I try to run it to tell people it’s a fun place now. But back then—you know, we got the violence now, mostly about the drugs. And you didn’t have drugs on the street like this when I come here fifty-five years ago. The biggest problem we had back then is most women and men was into “Don’t look at my man” and “Don’t look at my woman.” And that was, I think, the biggest violent thing, it wasn’t robbin’ and stuff like that—stick-up, snatching chains and stuff like that back then.

How has the club scene changed in general?
They had so many blues clubs, I never woulda opened this club if it was still like that, because there wasn’t no need. You didn’t start playing in your bedroom and went to the record company, you played in a club, somebody saw you, talked about you, and next the record company found you.

I was in Dallas, and that’s the first time I found out they were payin’ $85 to see me play in the club. And I got offended I said, “My fans can’t afford $85,” and everyone in the club say, “I’d rather pay $85 to see you play in the club than pay $15 to see you play in a outdoor theater.” And just how different it was. We all started in clubs, wasn’t no Ravinia, big stages like we play now in the summertime. In those days fifty-five years ago, there wasn’t no blues club this big, all of them was like sixty or less people, and it wasn’t no cover charge. You know, beer was twenty-five cents a bottle. When you go see Muddy Waters, it went up to thirty-five cents and that was the extra dime Muddy would get for playing.

Sounds like it was a very different Chicago back then.
Everybody had a job fifty-five years ago. We had a stockyard here with 100,000 people twenty-four-seven, and a steel mill. That’s gone now, and I think that’s got a lot to do with a lot of violence we have. And it was always, I would say sixty percent to seventy percent of it—the little violence we had back then, wasn’t compared to what we have now—was related to some kind of relationship.

I think I put it in the book, when I first come here I didn’t know anybody, and they found out I could play two or three songs, and they had me on the West Side, and I don’t know a soul, and this guy pulled a knife out, and he just looked at me, and say “You lookin’ at my woman?” And I’m sayin’, “Oh my god, he’s gonna stab me.” I didn’t even know anybody. I told the guy, I said, “Look man,” I said, “you can have my woman and yours, so you know I don’t want yours.” And he looks at me and he stood there for about twenty minutes with the knife, and walked away twenty minutes later come back and say, “Whatchyou drinking?” I say “Schlitz”—I still think he gonna cut me—and he say, “Getchyou one. ’Cause ain’t nobody never told me nothin’ like that.”

Photo: Aaron Porter

In the book, you write about a turning point, when you start to see white faces in the audience.
Well, it was Paul Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield—both of them didn’t live that long—they start showin’ up one by one. And we didn’t have no white faces in the club unless the cop came in. I laugh about it with Eric and them now. I would tell the drummer or the bass man, “Man, pull up the wine,” because the cop was in the house, and they was sittin’ at the table. I was saying, “I know white people ain’t listenin’ to this kind of blues,” you know. But that was the turnaround, and later on I got to know ’em, and they was comin’ learn how to play the same stuff we were doin’.

Although you became good friends with a lot of the white musicians who started playing blues—Butterfield, Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, the Stones—they often got more play than you guys even in the early days.
All those guys did so much for us. The British and the Santana and all of the white kids who went big before we did, on the stuff what Muddy, T-Bone and the rest of them all of ’em had did.

Funny example, before—one of the Chess Brothers is still living—before the other one died, the British guys started playing the blues, and this radio station, AM station, and they were playing a record, what they called “Burnin’ it Up,” by the British guys, and the Chess Brothers went to the same radio station and said, “Here’s Howlin’ Wolf’s version of that record that you’s playin’ by the British guys, and he put it in the garbage can, stomped it, and said, “I can’t play that.”

In the book, you mention Little Walter as one of the guys who didn’t get the credit he deserved, partially owing to the fact that he died fairly young. Are there other players from the old days you think deserve more recognition?
Actually a lot of people know about Muddy more than anything else, ’cause I think his name was mentioned more by the British, myself and everybody else. I even met the people who taught Muddy how to play—the late Son House and Fred McDowell.

I got to come here, which six days ago was fifty-five years ago, and they all was in good health, and I was like I’m in school now man, I don’t even wanna play, I just wanna hear these guys talk and watch them play so maybe one day if I could learn how to play well enough I could do that but if you were interviewing Muddy Waters right now, if he was alive, you’d pat your feet as he talked, and I’m not that good.

So it’s like I said about all the awards and things I get, I take ’em in honor of those people shoulda got ’em before me. ‘Cause I don’t own nothing, I learn everything, that was my schoolin’, meetin’ them before they passed away, and stole everything I could from what I saw them do, or heard what they did.

A lot of people talk about the way blues has changed over the years. What do you think the state of blues is now?
It’s scary. Nowadays, the blues is being ignored on your big radio stations; we got the satellite, but how many homes can afford satellite now? ’Cause you pay for that monthly like you do your phone and your rent and stuff. Some people can’t hardly pay their rent, so they can’t afford to get a satellite radio, so they kid don’t hear the real blues by Muddy Waters or B.B. bein’ played once or twice a week now. You have some radio stations: “I play blues! Every Sunday morning at 3:30 in the morning.” What kid up at 3:30 in the morning to hear it?”

Blues is not being played on your major radio stations no more. You not getting the airplay, because I think you have to pay for that now, where you used to come out with a  good record, with good lyrics, you didn’t need nothing, the disc jockeys wanted to play it. I don’t care how good a record you made. The way the economy is, you can make a good record, can’t nobody afford to buy it.

Music, whatever the kind of work you doing, is catching the same hell as everything else. Hopefully I can reach two, three more people through the book, because a lot of people is buying the book.

Have new music technologies changed the way blues is played and performed?
I have people laughing now—I’m looking to one day walk into a bar and find a robot Buddy Guy playing the guitar. It may not be like the human being, but… The big acts now, maybe I shouldn’t call no names, but you find they lip-sync. If you go behind the stage of these big super-people—I’m not gonna call no names—they not singin’, because you cannot dance the way they would dance and sing and not miss a note. So, you know, and people is eatin’ it up, and most people know it’s not real. But if you come see the blues, cat, I can’t do that. I got to give it to you straight from the heart.

Even the equipment we play with now, the recordings studio back then had a reel-to-reel tape, it’s all digital now. You go in there, and you make a track, and I say I gotta go use the bathroom. And you use the bathroom and come back, and they playin’ the track, and guess what, I ask, “What’s that?” And they say, “That’s just what you just did,” and that just how different it was back in those days, because back in those days when I came out the bathroom, I knew it was me.

It’s an old saying, say, you never get too old to learn.

Photo: Aaron Porter

You played at the White House earlier this year with B.B. King, Mick Jagger and other musicians to celebrate the blues and Black History Month. What was it like to meet the President?
I normally don’t get excited about nothin’, I never did. I’m a very shy person. To be raised on a farm—you know I was, like, sixteen, seventeen years old before I knew what running water was? And we didn’t have electricity. We didn’t have machinery on the farm. I had to pick cotton with my hands this time of year, September, October, November. When you gather the cotton, we had to pick it in a sack, and all I can say, pickin’ cotton and pickin’ a guitar. That’s a long ways from pickin’ cotton to pick the guitar in the White House. So that’s the way I summed it up: I said, “This is a long way, Mr. President,” and he knew. He knew.

What young artists are you excited about?
I discovered this young kid at five years old named Quinn Sullivan. When you go home, turn on your YouTube and remember that name. He just turned thirteen. And you gonna say, “Wow, Buddy told me something,” and this kid is playin’ stuff with Eric Clapton, me, B.B. King…and I’m saying, “How did you learn that at eight and nine years old?” Because I tease his family, when I was twelve years old I didn’t hardly know how to play a radio.

What else are you listening to these days?
I listen to everything that make me pat my feet.

Every January, Buddy Guy plays a sold-out sixteen-day residency at Buddy Guy’s Legends. Tickets go on sale for January 2013 on November 24.


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